IN Argentinian football, hostile means hostile. Five years ago the country’s governing body were pressed into action by the number of supporters killed in terrace violence there and took the extraordinary step of banning all away fans from attending games.
It is unlikely that anything at Millwall tomorrow will compare with the worst Marcelo Bielsa has known.
When the subject of the atmosphere at Millwall arose yesterday, a nonplussed Bielsa had to ask what that atmosphere comprised off. The relative hostility is part of Millwall’s psyche and routinely part of the plot when Leeds United visit but it has had no prominence in Bielsa’s preparation or his analysis; irrelevant almost, even as Millwall work to whip up a sold-out New Den.
Millwall’s manager, Neil Harris, and several of their players have spoken about little else in the build-up. It is the growl of the stadium and the results it inspired against Leeds in previous seasons – eight wins in 10 games on Millwall’s turf – which the club hope will lance the boil of a mediocre start to the year. On Wednesday the last few tickets for the match were sold. All Bielsa knows is that, in English football especially, there are strict limits to a crowd’s aggression.
“Everything that happens under these limits we should be ready for,” he said.
There have, over the years, been tasteless aspects to this fixture but in a football sense it is undeniable that Leeds have coped badly in Bermondsey. Few defeats went down as unlucky or contentious, and few involved much more than Millwall rising to the noise around them and running riot. The intrigue this time comes from the correlation between Leeds’ position now and where they were when they lost at Millwall on exactly the same weekend last season: top of the league, unbeaten in the Championship and playing in a way which justifies that form.
Bielsa confessed to being “not very familiar with the atmosphere at Millwall”. “But there are clear limits to hostility and it’s a civilised competition,” he said. “The description of the atmosphere is just anecdotal.
“I can’t think of any fans who could have more influence than ours and we don’t win all the games just thanks to the fans. It’s very important for us to receive support and we have to be prepared for the support the opponent will receive from their fans too. I’ve been doing this job for the last 30 years and I’ve never been affected by a lack of civility from the fans, not because I have a big tolerance for that but because I know we can’t go over some limits.
“I’ve been insulted in my career, I’ve been spat at and had bottles thrown at me but never anything serious happened to me. What I can say is that I don’t have any problem with tolerating the atmosphere.
“I don’t want to play the role of the victim. We have to admire how fans love their club. England has been the country which tried to eradicate violence in football.”
I’ve been insulted in my career, I’ve been spat at and had bottles thrown at me but never anything serious happened to me. What I can say is that I don’t have any problem with tolerating the atmosphere.Marcelo Bielsa
It remains to be seen if Bielsa’s composure is shared by his squad. So often it has been the players who wilt at Millwall, as they did last September when their one shot on goal was swamped by Millwall’s 20. Bielsa said he expected his side to cope better tomorrow.
“The conception of being a man is that when you receive aggression you have to multiply your response,” he said. “The limit to that is physical danger but you don’t have this thing in football.”
The true concern for him before tomorrow’s match is more tangible than a crowd he has never managed in front of before. Leeds, at full strength, have made a meal of Millwall away but in the space of a few days this week, Bielsa lost Kemar Roofe, Patrick Bamford and Pablo Hernandez to varying degrees of injury. Gaetano Berardi is out too and Pontus Jansson – the ilk of player who should thrive at the New Den – will start in place of him in the centre of defence. Bielsa hinted at using Tyler Roberts up front, the young Wales international who has yet to play in the Championship, but gave the impression of a coach who was still in two minds.
It is conceivable that Bielsa could go down the route that Spain have followed over the years by fielding a team without an out-and-out striker, potentially with Samuel Saiz as a number nine. Youngsters Jack Clarke and Ryan Edmondson, he said, were players who needed to be blooded carefully and over time.
In Leeds’ last game, a goalless draw with second-placed Middlesbrough on August 31, Bielsa saw much of what he expects to see at Millwall: pressure from set-pieces, physically strong opposition and a tight, competitive contest.
Leeds’ defending against Middlesbrough satisfied him but a shortage of ideas in attack was where he saw room for improvement as his squad attempt to stretch their unbeaten start through a seventh league match.
“Against Middlesbrough we had the ball, the possession but few chances to score,” Bielsa said. “The opponent had more chances than us. For us it was difficult This will be a game similar to one we played against Middlesbrough. The only difference is it will be an away game. It’s a team who don’t have a same ranking as Middlesbrough in the table but they have players who’ve been there for a long time. The team have assimilated their style.
“We will face similar difficulties that we faced against Middlesbrough. And we’ll see if we are faithful to our style or if we make concessions to a rival who is trying to neutralise us.”